Oarsman joins elite winner's circle

Last Thursday, Erik Brand drove into Seattle to pick up an oar.

But it wasn’t any old oar. More than 12 feet long and weighing about five and a half pounds, it was the same carbon-fiberglass oar that the 1994 BHS grad pulled in the 2000 Oxford-Cambridge crew races. Brand was seated #4 in Isis (Oxford’s University’s #2 eight-oared shell) which defeated Goldie (the equivalent boat from arch-rival Cambridge) in the annual renewal of a rivalry that began in 1836. The course consists of more than four miles of twists and turns along the Thames River in London.

By tradition, each winning rower gets his oar as a souvenir, and it took nearly two years to arrive here.

In a sense, the oar’s arrival marked the end of one major phase of Brand’s life. He left yesterday for two and a half months in England. When he returns, he’ll begin medical school.

The start of that phase came seven and a half years ago when he entered the University of Washington as a freshman.

“I didn’t want high school to be my last experience in sports,” he said. Because none of his three sports as a Spartan – football, basketball and track – could be taken to the next level, he thought he’d give rowing a try.

By then he was nearly 6-3 and weighed about 190.

“I contacted Stanford and the Ivy League schools,” he said, “but they all wanted experience. The UW accepted walk-ons.”

About 100 other like-minded individuals showed up for the first day of practice in the fall, a number that dwindled to 16 by the end of the year.

“They made it real hard right away, to weed out people,” Brand noted.

But Brand – as would be his wont through a rowing career that encountered more downturns than a share of stock – persevered and prospered. As a junior, he rowed in the Husky JV boat that won both the national championship and the prestigious Henley Regatta even though no one – including their own coaches – gave them a chance.

As a senior, he rowed in the JV boat again, and when a British boat came over for the Windermere Cup, he struck up a conversation with the coxswain and suddenly became interested in going to Oxford to study and to row.

“I asked Bob Ernst (the UW rowing coach) if I could go to Oxford,” Brand said. “He laughed in my face. ‘It’s for international elite only,’ he said, and wouldn’t even give me the phone number.”

No problem. The resourceful Brand cadged the number from a fellow rower. A Phi Beta Kappa who majored in Comparative History and Ideas and had excellent ERG (rowing ergometer) scores, he was soon on his way overseas.

“Medical school can wait,” he told himself. “I’m in shape now, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

But his last-minute application meant that all the dorm rooms were taken. He had no place to stay when he arrived.

“That was the loneliest I’ve ever been,” he recalled. “I only knew one person in the whole country.”

Stroke of luck

After couch-surfing for several weeks, he had a stroke of luck – actually a double stroke. He found a house with four female students, who not only gave him the best room but also fixed him up with a young woman who became his girlfriend from then on.

His rowing progress was nowhere near as felicitous.

At first he was an integral member of the Isis boat.

“But I went from stroke to six to four to two to spare,” he said. “We went from a rhythm based on me to me being out of the boat. It was frustrating and hard to swallow.”

While he excelled in on-water performance, his ERG scores were lower than those of other rowers and his coaches focused on those.

No stranger to frustration, Brand channeled his energy and won the Spare Pairs division at Henley.

In the meantime, he had completed his initial coursework in social studies and desirous of returning, decided on something closer to his goal of entering med school.

“Pre-med sciences are so dry,” he explained. “It’s like memorizing the alphabet when you want to read or write. So I went for a master of science in human biology. That tied my interest in anthropology and ethnology to science.

“But the coursework was ten times harder and I had to borrow even more money to continue.”

Yet his rowing continued its downward spiral.

“They treated me like I was new again,” he said. “They put me in single sculls, which I’d never done before. My hands were so bloody I couldn’t even put them into my pockets.”

But Brand again persevered, even defeating the Oxford lightweight pair by himself. That put him back in the coaches’ good graces and back into the Isis boat in time for the Oxford-Cambridge race on April 25. Many thousands watched on the banks of the river, with millions more tuning in on TV.

The race is timed to take advantage of the maximum incoming tide, with the boats running with the current. Isis won by more than five lengths.

That night, the victorious crew attended the Boat Race Ball at the Savoy Hotel, a black-tie formal affair.

Then the oars went to the oar painter, who needed a year to get them ready, carefully entering the relevant data on the blades. Soon afterward, Brand located a California crew in England for a regatta that took the oar back to the US, but he was unable to make connections and it sat for months in a crew house in San Diego.

Finally a friend, a member of the Lake Washington Rowing Club which was in San Diego for a regatta this spring, brought the oar back to Seattle on the team’s truck.

“The shortest part of the trip – getting it from Seattle to Bainbridge – was the most carefully planned,” he joked. “We coordinated three cars and brought it over here.”

But Brand’s odyssey, despite its happy conclusion, has one final downturn.

“I’m assigned to the Pullman campus of the UW to begin with. So I’ll be a Cougar for a year. I can’t believe it. The irony.”

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